Russian vs Belarusian for dummies

Russian and Belarusian are the two official languages in Belarus. By all accounts Russian is far more widely spoken, both in Belarus in general and Minsk in particular. (There’s also a Russian–Belarusian hybrid, and Belarusian can be written according to at least two different conventions. But let’s keep things simple here.)

I’m frustrated that I don’t understand either language and at least I want to know which one it is that I’m hearing or reading. Hearing, I’ve no idea; but reading, it’s easy. Consider this bilingual sign on one building:

bilingual sign, Minsk

Which half is Russian, which Belarusian?

Belarusian is on the left.

  • Belarusian has the letter Ў ў, which isn’t used in Russian.
  • Belarusian has the letter І і where Russian has И и.

In some very different context you might be looking at Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, or something else again; but chances are that in Minsk (well, aside from the nameplates outside the embassies of Bulgaria, etc), you’re looking at Belarusian, Russian or both; and knowing which you’re looking at is one way to impress yourself, even if nobody else.

next in the Belarus series


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